Diffracting the Mediterranean. Rethinking Infrastructure Environments beyond Human Scale

27.03-28.03.2020, Workshop, OI Beirut

Horden & Purcell (2000), in their seminal work ‘Corrupting the Sea’, suggest what is common to the Mediterranean is not a shared set of characteristics but rather a shared set of problems: the problem of risk and how to manage it to protect communal livelihoods. The combination of errant climate and disjunctive topography produced a series of micro ecologies that forced its inhabitants to establish extensive trade networks with their neighbors so as to hedge against bad crops, bad season, changing weather conditions and natural or man-made catastrophes (see also Lahoud, 2017).

Implied in this characterization of the Mediterranean is not only a rejection of the idea of the Mediterranean as a self-evident, coherent spatial and cultural unit, but a peculiar ontological proposition for rethinking the propensity of infrastructural relations beyond the human scale. For what Horden & Purcell effectively propose is a post-humanist ontology for understanding what grounds collective life in particular places that is attentive to the material agency of nature, climate and bio physical activity in sustaining world building relations across social, biological and geological strata and spheres.

This workshop interrogates how contemporary architectures of circulation – special economic zones, roads, communication networks and data satellites - articulate to these historically situated ecologies and infrastructural relations, tracing their variously materializing, onto-epistemic effects. Modern colonial histories of the Mediterranean give vivid testimony how the introduction of new technologies, i.e. radio, telegraphy, undersea cables, meteorological instruments and grand geo-engineering designs radically changed the course and direction of flows in the interest of colonial capital and power, ushering in a period of scientificisation and weapponisation of knowledge and environments  that brought the metabolic life cycle of the region and sea ever more firmly under European control. As Valeska Huber (2015; 2012;) observed, the opening of the Suez canal (1869) transformed the Mediterranean from a closed sea into a central passageway between Europe, Africa and Asia.  This not only allowed for ever larger areas of the world to be brought under colonial administration but opened the local biosphere to inhabitations by ‘tropical’ species the Indian Ocean while at the same time disrupting the spiritual pathways of local travelers and pilgrims trying to cross the three continents via the Red Sea. Fearful of the spread of disease as much as of the expansion of Islamist resistance against colonial rule, British administrators imposed rigid medical checks that forced non-European passengers and cargo to undergo lengthy physical inspections, pathologizing animals, landscapes and bodies into a source of risk under the pretext of disease prevention and health care.

Others traced Europe’s infrastructural incursions through the lens of missionary activity and military-scientific operations, documenting how they gradually transformed the Mediterranean into a site of ongoing scientific observation – an open laboratory - where new knowledge about climate, disease, crop productivity and dersertification could be created and tested in grand agricultural and climate engineering designs (Cagliotti, 2019; Mahony & Endfield, 2018; Lehmann, 2015;  Livingstone, 2005). Nurtured by racialized fears of unfamiliar weather patterns, these experiments were decisive for the emerging geographies of European imperialism, providing the knowledge and tools necessary for re-scripting local ecosystems in the interest of colonial settlements, trade and capital (Yusoff, 2019; Livingstone, 2002; Mathe-Shires, 2001).

How do contemporary infrastructures in the Mediterranean articulate to these political ecologies of colonial relations? And how can we map and understand their multi-scalar, intersectional effects?  

Each of the invited speakers to this workshop responds to these questions from a different disciplinary viewpoint and methodological perspective. Participants include Sarah Green, social and cultural anthropologist at the University of Helsinki and one of her co-researchers, Samuli Lähteenaho. Together they are working on the ERC funded study ‘Crosslocations’, led by Sarah, using the concept of ‘relative positioning’ and ‘locating regimes’ to map how the changing values and significance assigned to particular places affect individual and collective life chances, wellbeing and their environmental, social and political conditions across the Mediterranean. Further participants include, Angelo Matteo Cagliotti, Assistant Professor of History at Barnard College, Columbia, (tbc) who currently investigates how the legacy of Fascist imperialism in Libya, Ethiopia and Somalia continues in the scientific practices of the World Food Organisation, F.A.O. Next in line are Munira Kayat, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the American University in Cairo and Alaa Attia, PHD researcher at the Department of Anthropology, University Toronto. , Alaa uses walking as embodied method to interrogate pilgrimage roads as a source of counter knowledge, in the struggle of Sinai Beduines against a hyperbolic infrastructure project led by foreign investors and the Egyptian state. Running under the name of NEOM the project promotes itself as a start-up company the size of a country, promising to become a leading global hub for future energy research, the design of artificial ecologies and groundbreaking genetic research. And finally, not yet confirmed but we hope they can join us, Asia Bazdyrieva and Solveig Suess, a team of young visual researchers with a background in Art history and bio chemistry, who use planetary-scale sensory networks—satellites, surveillance cameras, cellphones — as a vastly distributed camera to interrogate the anticipation of infrastructure and trade. Combining documentary filmmaking with ethnographic research Asia and Solveig follow the distribution of Earth observation systems and data networks as they expand across vast regions between China and Europe above and below the ground.

The main aim of bringing such a diverse group together is to exchange views and experiences with different methods for mapping the propensity of infrastructural relations and to engage in a wider discussion about the possibilities and challenges of interdisciplinary approaches aimed at understanding the colonial entanglement of infrastructures, connectivity and ecological formations on a more-than-human scale.

Structure of the event
As a preliminary structure for the event we propose to start with a sequence of individual presentations, followed by reflections and comments of the group. The second day will then be spent to further elaborate on the potentials and limits of individual approaches and to discuss how they may be transferred to other fields and contexts but also to possible future collaborations among the participants.

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